A defining moment

Over ten years ago, I first put a page on my website giving my definition of corporate social responsibility. At that time, there weren't too many such definitions out there. It's still there, and the definition hasn't changed.

"CSR is about how companies manage the business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society."

When it was first created, this was as much a campaigning or aspirational statement as anything. Quite a few people believed CSR to be purely about philanthropy, about the extras rather than about how the company makes its money.

I've been mildly gratified to see it repeated in various places, including some quite surprising ones.

And it was soon joined by much more authoritative statements by august bodies, including a reasonably convoluted one from the European Commission.

Convoluted definitions usually come about for good reasons - that is that the authors are trying to express an idea very specifically and with no chance of misinterpretation. It's why academia can appear so perplexing to non-academics. The language is there for a reason -but it can actually seem to obscure meaning sometimes.

My aim on this website has always been to simplify - both definitions and the style of commentary. I get lots of comments from people who have found this helpful to them over the years, and I've always appreciated knowing that the work that goes into this site has been of use to people.

Why am I talking about this now? Because, of course, the European Commission has just released a new communication about CSR - along with a new definition.

"The responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society."

Heck - the closeness of our definitions now is striking - except they managed to be even more succinct and brief than I did!

I still prefer mine - why? Because I see in it a presumption that businesses have both negative and positive impacts, and the aim is for companies to produce an overall positive balance. You could read the EU definition as being purely about companies taking responsibility for their negatives.

If you look into the narrative the Commission gives around its definition, you see a positive intent. "... how we can maximise shared value which serves the interest of business and society at one and the same time."

Ultimately, of course, these definitions are only useful so far as they describe real phenomena and are tools that companies can use to create the right kind of change. I do think there's some momentum building behind the kind of approach that both companies and society agree is mutually beneficial - which is all to the good.

Posted on: 31 Oct 2011

Tags: definition of CSR European Commission


2 comments for this post

  • Alex McKay
    24 Nov 2011
    Weblink: http://www.m4c-sustainability.co.uk

    Interesting article. I'm impressed that your definition hasn't changed in all those years. It comes at an interesting point for us. We were talking about dropping references to CSR completely from our website after attending an event where it was still used to mean philanthropy. It's frustrating but if that's what people understand CSR to be we don't really want to use it. We generally use CR or sustainability, and use them pretty much interchangably - recognising that while there are differences in how people define them, in practice they are pretty much the same. Do you still stick by CSR or do you embrace the move to sustainability? Alex

  • Mallen Baker
    24 Nov 2011
    Weblink: http://www.businessrespect.net

    Hi Alex - thanks for the interesting comments. My attitude tends to be that language is only there as a means for communication - so I use whatever language the audience I'm addressing will understand. If I'm speaking to marketers, for instance, I won't use any of these terms - I will talk about building trust. The truth is that there is no easy, widely understood and popular term for what we're talking about. All are prone to either misinterpretation or, at the very least, requiring definitions to be delivered when they are used. Also, practically speaking, I stick with CSR because there are still a lot of people looking for it, and this website - depending which national flavour of Google you use - comes in the top ten for searches for it. That's not an asset I'm inclined to give away in a hurry!

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